Unfortunately, the pictures and footage is limited because of the limitations set out by the Japanese government. In fact, the government had changed a number of things this year than from years past, much to the disappointment of just about everybody who went on this trip. In the past, the island was only opened one day a year. While the number of visitors was limited, of those visitors were allowed to venture off into the island to explore. This year we were told we would have escorts; that seemed reasonable, even if just for liability's sake. They split the everybody into groups of about fifteen; we were group G (Golf) with a wannabe drill sergeant who will also be our fearless leader in Peleliu. I can't wait.
Either way, we left the hotel about 3:30 this morning. You've never seen so many dark circles and puffy eyes. While everyone clearly showed signs of sleepiness, there remained an excited anticipation in the air. Today is the day. We finally get to visit. The flight took about two hours and we arrived on Iwo Jima, recently renamed Iwo To, about 7:30am. We were then handed a detailed schedule. We were to be bused around the island before we made it to the Reunion of Honor and would leave the island by 1:30pm. What!? We didn't sing up for this! We signed up to crawl through caves, and visit sights of know MTSU veterans' casualties, and see untouched artifacts from the war! You can't do any of that from the bus!
Our group was not scheduled to leave until 9:20am, so we were escorted to an airplane hangar of which we found out rapidly that photography of any kind was forbidden (the stationed Japanese Navy would run towards you with arms crossed in an "x" quietly yelling "oh oh oh"... very Japanese). We basically became prisoners within this hangar, as we couldn't leave except to step directly outside the hangar. We finally left around 9:15ish to board a mini-bus that would take us directly to Mt. Suribachi. Our minder told us that we would visit a Sherman tank, but unfortunately did not have enough time to get out of the bus, so we would have to take pictures from the bus windows. In the meantime, our quasi-militant group leader continued to explain where cool stuff to see was on the island, "oh, right down that path would lead to bunkers," but we were at the whim of our minder and bus driver so we could not go see for ourselves.
We finally made it to Mt. Suribachi. As we filed out of the bus our minder told us we had 20 minutes to take pictures if we wanted before we were required to board the bus. What! 20 minutes? That wasn't enough time to do everything, but we had no choice. So the group mingled and shifted, trying to take pictures of the monument and the landing beaches while not trying to include the others in there pictures. It was crazy, but we took some good photos of the group on top. We didn't have time to contemplate, but we stood where the American flag was raised in 1945. We walked were those Marines raised the flag that are in the most popular picture of World War II. The weather was nice, just a little breezy but it didn't get above 80 degrees.
After our 20 minutes were up, we headed to the ceremony. Evidently, we got there early (probably because we only go 20 minutes on the beach) so we were allowed to go to the invasion beaches. It was almost like exploring except for the Japanese Navy guys spaced out around our "perimeter" of what we could explore.
I think the group (and not just us 10 from MTSU) was beginning to get very frustrated at the fact that we couldn't get to do anything on our own to explore or see the island. But walking along the beaches helped alleviate some of those frustrations. We were walking where Marines fought. We were walking where Marines were wounded. We were walking where Marines died. The sand's consistency made walking extremely difficult; I can't imagine fighting through it. The waves along the beach crashed onto the beach continuously; try imagining swimming through that. If we stopped to consider the sacrifices made on the beach, the fact that we could do what we wanted didn't seem as important. I tried to break away from the group as much as possible for my own contemplations about what the beach meant. I found the fulfillment, even if it was brief.
We had limited time, so we filled up our containers of sand, Dr. Frisby read aloud a (very) brief service for the MTSU students that fought on Iwo Jima, and took the necessary pictures before we had to go to the Reunion of Honor ceremony. The ceremony itself was nice, but that could be because I like band music and patriotic songs (especially when mixed together!). A few of us were able to break away again back to the beaches for a few minutes before we had to leave for the plane. Walking (and trying to run) up and down the invasion beaches proved a very difficult task. And that was without a 50lbs rucksack, soaking wet, possibly injured, fearing for my life as my fellow Marines fall beside me, and trying to dodge any of the explosions surrounding me.
We made our way back to the hangar only to wait another 45 minutes as prisoners inside the hangar before we load the plane. The flight and bus ride pack were relatively quiet. The majority of those on the trip were severely disappointed like me. Frustration also played a huge role in the working of this as we didn't know who to blame (if anybody). Everything was out of our control and the only thing that could be done was to try to be a delightfully strong-waitress.
So we made our way back to the plane, back to the buses, then back to our hotel with our sands from Iwo Jima. While we walked away with disappointment, I think we also walked away with no regrets. I know that the unfortunate circumstances forced me into a position in which I had to not only identify why visiting this island was important, but those certain sites. I needed to be able to grasp that maybe this trip was the beginning of the end of these types of tours to this island and in a way, I partook of history by seeing that transition.
Regardless of how I feel tonight (tired!), I know I have visited an island in the middle of the Pacific that serves as a monument like no other. I may not have been able to see all of it, or what I wanted to, but I did what I initially set out to do: visit the site in order to pay some form of homage and respect to the men who fought and died there and I am glad that I did.